Escape to India

The good thing was that their nursing contract with the hospital in Saudi Arabia allowed them a months leave every four months. Away from the sterile white washed hospital and bleakness of the desert, India, their holiday destination, was a breath taking, dizzying assault. Colours, sounds, smells, poverty, life in all its forms, heat and sweat, filled every last bit of their senses. Cornelia and friend , Lorna, arrived faces blackened, overheated, and exhausted, in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. They’d done it alone, travelling from Delhi up country on over crowded trains and buses with locals clinging on the roofs so as to get the cool breeze, mothers with babies strapped to their backs, eating from little metal pots on the floor of the carriage, their fingers stained yellow from deliciously smelling spices. Cornelia, jaded and tired was saddened by the young women’s faces, perhaps once beautiful, but now weathered and worn, with hands knarled and aged from working in the fields.

Dried out and exhausted, survival and the next opportunity to quench their thirst and to sleep, had kept the two friends going.

It was the late 1970s when restrictions on tourism into the area had just been relaxed.

On arrival in Srinagar a battered taxi hurled them away from shanty towns which covered the waterways emptying into Lake Dal. Cornelia was near collapse when gradually the way ahead cleared revealing a maze of intricate waterways lined with avenues of trees leaning at an angle away from the direction of the cool breeze, as though leading the way to a promised land, high up in the Himalayas.

Lake Dal stretched out ahead of them. An expanse of dazzling silver water captured in a beam of sunlight. The willow trees along the banks reflected their image at the waters edge. A garden of white lotus flowers, pink and white lily pads, and burr marigolds covered the water further ahead. Avenues of crystal clear waters criss-crossed the lake having been parted by occasional shikaras, long boats, soporifically gliding by, their bright red canopies shading their occupants from the sun.

‘Welcome, welcome misses’ , Cochin, who was to be their houseboy, greeted them aboard the ornately carved wooden houseboat which was to be their home for the next two weeks. Dressed in a white dhoti with a donkey coloured pashmina shawl thrown over one shoulder, with his weather worn face and toothy smile, he blended perfectly with the landscape. Cochin gently took their bags and led them into a sitting room reminiscent of the days of the Raj, with luxurious upholstered red brocade chairs, richly decorated wooden tables and thick pile rugs. Lampshades with silk tassels. A cast iron wood burner in the corner. They collapsed into the softness of the armchairs, arms and legs outstretched, and slept.

A little later, Cochin gently tapped a brass gong to summon them onto the veranda where a table was laid for tea. He’d laid out a white cotton tablecloth and silver tea-set. Hot steaming tea in a silver teapot, and warm scones with butter and jam lay before them. Desperate to eat but afraid to do so after being afflicted with gastric disorders they’d experienced on route, Lorna bravely took the first bite.

Is that wise’ asked Cornelia.

‘What else can we do. Do the cooking ourselves’.

‘Well, I feel okay’.

‘I feel as if we’ve been sentenced to death’.

‘For God’s sake stop being silly Cornelia, its delicious’.

With this they set about tea. It really was manna from heaven. Thirst quenching steaming green tea. They drank two entire pots, and still felt an internal need for more, as the sun and the journey had sucked life out of them.

They sat back in their comfortable wicker chairs and dozed. The verdant hills behind them beginning to darken in the late afternoon. These hills were said to have once housed an ancient temple known as the Throne of Solomon. Believed to have travelled here, Solomon, whilst renowned for his wisdom, was also said to have magical powers. Something of the past was here now. They felt it. Suddenly, a chilly evening breeze rippled like music spreading across the lake. A big moon rose casting eerie dark shadows around them. Cornelia shuddered, it was as though something was there in the wind, observing them. The air off the snow capped mountains became bitterly cold. It was time for bed.

Quietly Cochin appeared and gently chided, ‘You need sleep now misses, its warm inside’. He led them below deck where he had prepared their beds. The mattresses were two feet thick, covered with white crisp sheets, and plump pillows. The covers turned down. He passed a copper warming pan between the sheets before retiring to his home on the shore behind the boat. In the corner a wood burner gently simmered taking the chill off the room. What bliss. They managed ‘Sleep well’, ‘and you’ before a deep sleep took hold of them.

They woke refreshed ready for breakfast. Cochin already on the veranda, table laid, a pot of steaming chai awaiting them. ‘I recommend Indian breakfast misses, tikka dhal and chapatis, but I have porridge or I have fried egg breakfast too misses’. They Opted for Indian, a new experience, delicious dhal served with a variety of pickles, and chipatis flavoured with aromatic spices. Wonderful, and what’s more, still room for porridge laced with creamy yoghurt and pistachio nuts. Lorna turned to Cornelia, ‘have we died and gone to heaven’ . ‘For sure’ Cornelia replied stretching her back and gazing up to the skies.

This morning the lake was dark blue, the sun not yet full of its afternoons brilliance. In the shade, dark green forests spread out in the foothills of the snow capped mountains. The lake was still and quiet. Cornelia felt a sort of interior silence, at one with the heart of the place. There were no demands here. Perhaps for the first time it was enough just to be herself.

 

It was unanimous, today was to be a day of rest. Romantic novels full of sex and impossible dreams, and jugs of freshly made iced lemonade on the veranda. Not too much alcohol, although Cochin had provided a supply of home made wine coloured pale green, smelling of grass. It was pretty good. Cornelia and Lorna felt rather mellow. The two friends chatted and reminisced recalling old memories. There was something special about the tranquillity and the beauty of the lake that cleared the mind and uncovered the past, layer by layer.

‘Lorna’ Cornelia lowered her voice, ‘Cochin, right out of the blue, asked me to marry him earlier last night’.

Stiffling a laugh, Lorna admitted ‘Wow, he proposed to me this morning’. It appeared they’d both turned down the offer, claiming to be already married.

‘Actually’ Cornelia said, ‘I never really had a family, mum died when I was young. I was looked after by my dad’.

‘Me too, my dad left when I was six, leaving mum to bring me up, I never really knew my father, and yet we’ve both made it in our way haven’t we’, Lorna replied.

Cornelia quietly thought about how her life might have been if she’d had a mother to take care of her. Even trying hard, she could not imagine what it would have been like to have a mother to love her.

‘I don’t remember feeling sad when my mum died, or when dad died. I guess I blocked it all these years Lorna, but at least I feel something now, its this place you know.’

Lorna thought for a moment, ‘yes I guess it took me many years to recover from my dad leaving me, and I guess I always hoped he’d come back to us one day because he loved us really. I’m so lucky to have met Dave at the hospital, we planning to get married on our next leave. He’s really kind, and as long as I’m fed and watered that’s all I really want’.

‘You are lucky Lorna. Somehow I always wanted more. Yes I also wanted to be taken care of, but I wanted excitement, an interesting life, an intellectual life, a passionate lover, least of all no-one ordinary, and a soul-mate of course. Wow, what a list ’. Cornelia laughed.

‘When I think about it now Lorna, I realise I’ve had little to offer, and no notion of home or family life. I’m beginning to realise what it all means now though, I still think I could find someone, but fear it may be too late’.

With this the pair refilled their glasses again, and again, until Cochin’s homemade brew was finished. Later that evening Cochin explained that he had planned for them to take a two day trek into the Himayalas.

Just as he had said, early the next morning two weather beaten, short but sturdy, Sherpa guides arrived carrying huge packs containing anoraks, spiky mountain boots, thick woollen gloves, and goggles. After lengthy instructions, they set out on foot along the edge of the lake, over a rickety wooden bridge to where four sturdily well-built shaggy horses were tethered. Lorna gasped, ‘Oh God, they said they were ponies, these are more like real horses. I’ve never been on a horse before’. ‘Neither have I. We can’t go’. The older Sherpa, Shakti, smiled knowingly, and gently helped them onto a high log and onto the horses, slowly and firmly showing them how its done. Surprisingly, the animals were gentle and sure footed, and Cornelia and Lorna soon sat comfortably in the wide padded saddles, clinging fiercely to the reins. They trekked slowly along the Jhelum river in the foothills of the mountains. The river was running fast downhill over huge boulders reflecting the sheer blue sky. Dark enchanted forests rose above them, and in the distance, fields of yellow rape. High up in the meadows there was a hill shepherd leaning on a stick, a dark woollen shawl looped over his head. His sheep were grazing in watery meadows. They had thick coats, and fat bushy tails where they stored food to sustain them against the cold nights and winter months. As they climbed higher nearing the glaciers, the sun became blinding, sharpening the view. They came upon a field of mustard coloured grass above which rose a row of jagged snow covered mountains. This was known locally as the Meadow of Gold. Surrounded with this untamed natural beauty, Cornelia felt full of hope, surely in this magical world we live in, anything was possible.

Although only their first day trekking, it seemed like a lifetime had passed. A mutual feeling of extreme happiness passed through them, as if there would be nothing to worry about, ever again.

 

Marie Lewis